The suffocation of xenophobic irrationality

Xenophobia has always been a problem in the history of humanity and its demands for continuous debate never abates. Even in professodly open and liberal modern societies, it is sometimes nothing more than a crumbling, well-camouflaged veneer.

Just this year, xenophobia has performed an alarming comeback, becoming a banner for sceptics of the migrant crisis, as leaders of organized protests screaming islamophobic chants backed by dangerous masses emerge. What would have been inappropiate to say a few years ago is now merely personal opinion. Xenophobia may not be fashionable yet, but it has certainly becoe increasing socially acceptable.

Fortunately, there is a growing counter-movement of people who recognises the need to welcome, help and and integrate migrants. Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, was also celebrated for her surprising inclusion of migrants in German society, even adding: “If we now have to start apologizing for the fact that we show a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country.“ However, she is now struggling under growing pressure by her own divided conservative party and the electorate to maintain this stance.

In Germany, this “welcoming-culture“ (as proudly named in various newspapers) is vanishing in the face of xenophobic outbreaks of violence concerning refugee camps. Only recently, Henriette Reker, at the time a candidate for the mayoral elections in Cologne, was attacked by a man with a knife for her welcoming political stance towards refugees. Furthermore, there have been hundreds of police reports of attacks on refugee camps, often consisting of dangerous arson attacks. Johanne Peter, director of a refugee camp in Rüthen, reported that while it is heartening to see people in the neighbourhood expressing warmth and eagerness to help, she is shocked at how the fear of foreigners can stir up such contempt and hatred in others as well.

Hence, this show of good will, already showing signs of strain, may not last and may be unable to transmit itself into reality. An overly complicated bureaucracy is thus eagerly seeking ways to make aid efforts more independent and is increasingly leaving it to ordinary citizens to satisfy the refugees’ need for help. This was best demonstrated when food stocks were closed because they did not fulfill certain hygiene standards, but tons of ordinary citizens stepped up to donate food to the refugees. With a long and cold winter ahead of us, the need for a vastly more organised system of aid dissemination becomes increasingly urgent.

So how do we resolve this eternal tussle between citizen and outsider, limited state resources and basic human compassion?

We can assume that most people are neither radically xenophobic nor actively engaged in welcoming parties. Most people keep abreast of current affairs and are compassionate, but this knowledge nd compassion simply fall short of translating into action. Why is that?

First of all, there is a difference between knowing and realizing. One may know that thousands of people are dying when trying to cross the ocean, but will not realize the scale and magnitude of what that constitutes. No matter how much we read, there will always be a form of disjoint and distance to a situation that is so far removed from our own realities that we simply cannot comprehend. There is a limit to our empathetic imagination. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris may have changed that, as a small part of the war has suddenly migrated to a country in peacetime. As biased as it may seem, it is true that we can identify with Paris more than we could ever identify with Syria.

Secondly, when we form an opinion about something like the migrant crisis, it is not purely about providing a sufficient amount of information or providing logical and cogent arguments for and against. We all possess some knowledge, we know some facts, we are provided with bits of information. But we do not rationally weigh positive and negative aspects and come to a logical conclusion. We form opinions by highlighting certain parts of our knowledge, ridiculing some of it, making some of our information supreme to the rest of it and ignoring other bits of facts.

So how do we discern what to believe? We are influenced by moments. By a friend making a comment, by that headline we see in a magazine, by the video of a reporter tripping an immigrant or the angry speech of a talented politician against inclusion. We are also influenced by the culture and social structures that surround us, the people we look up to and our experiences. This is why the picture of a little dead boy stranded on a beach triggered a brief wave of solidarity amongst Europeans.

The facts of this crisis has been in existence and unchanging for five years, but people’s attention spans and opinions wax and wane with time, with the result that xenophobia may once again return to trump our shortlived compassion once a tragedy fades till it is forgotten.

The importance thus lies not in fighting against xenophobia. It lies in fighting for integration. We may not be able to eradicate xenophobia completely from society, but what matters is to make the voices of reason louder than the irrational. A screaming preacher might not be stopped from screaming, but he can be drowned in the voices of a superior strength.

Anna finished school in Germany in 2014, spent a gap year doing a voluntary service in Nicaragua and is now a first year law student at UCL. Other than being quite athletic because of excessive finger-muscle-training through typing stories and essays on her computer, she likes to experiment what her creativity can do with writing, painting and music.